The Lady In The Lake (Raymond Chandler)

Raymond Chandler is not only one of the finest writers in the English language: he’s the gold standard for detective fiction. But sometimes when I read him I wish he could have found a way to break out of the formula and really let his imagination loose—let all the poetry and over-too-soon bit parts fill the page. He seems more interested in everything else than the so-called plot. On the other hand, maybe he hit it just right. The weirdness that is so compelling on the periphery of his writing might fall apart under the harsh light of center stage. Chandler’s passing-glance encounters always have the quality of real, observed life. One of the least fussy writers who ever lived, his descriptions are effortlessly evocative.

Here’s Marlowe entering an empty house: “The room had a hushed warm smell, the smell of late morning in a house not yet opened up….In the silence time passed. It passed in the dry whirr of the electric clock on the mantel, in the far-off toot of an auto horn on Aster Drive, in the hornet drone of a plane over the foothills across the canyon, in the sudden lurch and growl of the electric refrigerator in the kitchen.” Chandler’s gift was essentially lyrical. But he always mixes the comedy, excitement and intrigue perfectly. Chandler manages to be sincere and sarcastic at the same time, can deliver irony in plain and simple fact and does dialogue (spoken and unspoken) like nobody else. With Marlowe as his lead, the novel can change from cynical humor to exacting, gripping tension and suspense within moments. Marlowe’s imperfect style of investigation really is what makes this novel tick, and he carries the torch for the narration, being able to read seedy people and dangerous situations. When there is a slip up, he has to worm his way out using those instincts he’s had for years.

What appears to be a case of finding the whereabouts of a missing wife turns out to be much more, as is typical of Chandler to make things a bit more complicated once the first mystery is presented to us. Marlowe is summoned and hired by Derace Kingsley to find his wife, Crystal Kingsley. Crystal has apparently slipped town with another man and Kingsley, worried about public scandal, puts a price on finding her. Marlowe heads to Little Fawn Lake, a small resort away from the city, to find some clues, as it seems to be the last place she was seen. As with many Marlowe novels, the primary mystery leads to a few other puzzles, and, soon after arriving and speaking with one of the more eccentric characters, heavy drinker Bill Chess, Marlowe finds himself in the middle of quite a case, where people aren’t really who you think they are and even if they are, you can’t really trust them.

After a mysterious death, the game is pretty much on for Marlowe, as he tries to understand the motives of a murderer, all the while dealing with some shady types and even corrupt cops. The action takes place in early 1942, and it’s clear that America is ramping up for a big war. Rubber is rationed, sentries are posted here and there, and some delicacies are getting harder to find. Luckily for Marlowe, there’s no shortage of booze. He seems to hit the bottle a lot harder in this book than he did in the early novels. All the graft, corruption, murder and general moral decay contrast awkwardly with the many patriotic statements Chandler drops into the book. Looks like the War Board asked him to do a little flag waving. Makes you wonder, though, if the boys on the troop ships reading this book ever questioned what they were fighting for. If you can handle a convoluted plot, there’s much to enjoy here.

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